If Found, Return to Hell, Legends & Lattes, and Gideon the Ninth
Happy start of the third fiscal quarter (Q3) to all who celebrate! Like a lot of people, I cope with the pressures of work with necromancy and cozy novels, so I snarfed up three novels in quick succession in the last two weeks.
If Found, Return to Hell by Em X. Liu #
I picked up this novella because I saw someone post something like "If you like cozy reads like Murderbot, you'll love If Found, Return to Hell." Which, OK, I don't think Murderbot is cozy although it is my comfort read, but OK. Furthermore, what a fucking fantastic title. Thirdmore, I noticed this was Em X. Liu's first novella-length work, and I love to read authors who are just bursting onto the scene.
If Found, Return to Hell is a fantasy science setting, that is, instead of taking science as its conceit and then using it like magic, it takes magic and treats it like science. Specifically, it sets up a world where magic is kind of like medicine in the US, not just the science but also the dreadful soul-crushing bureaucracy of it. Oh, and the titular Hell, in this setting, is also the bureaucratic Chinese afterworld rather than the Christian-inspired hells I'm more used to. Everything about the setting and the setup is great.
However, most of the novella feels like it's spent having cozy times with our protagonist and her prince of hell roommate. It turns out that while I like having cozy times, I don't so much like reading about them. I would have liked more conflict or at least tension. The strongest parts of the novella where the beginning where our protagonist is sitting through a boring training at One Wizard and then has a kind of supercut of terrible magical triage nurse customer support calls, and towards the end where our protagonist has to go to hell to deal with the bureaucracy.
It's mostly a matter of pacing, which could be a choice that Liu made, or a matter of them still developing their craft. I kind of hope it's the second because I love their worldbuilding and would really enjoy seeing it paired with more tension and conflict. In any case, I look forward to reading what they write next.
Get If Found, Return to Hell from Rebellion publishing. It came out on June 15, 2023.
Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree #
Legends & Lattes got mentioned a few times on Our Opinions Are Correct and I thought the story of an orc who retired from her life of bashing skulls for bounties to start a coffee shop sounded fun. It was fun. It reminded me a bit of Terry Pratchett's Going Postal in that ordinary things from our world (the postal service in the latter and coffee shop in Lattes) get reinvented in a magical world to comic effect.
I think you would have to have played Dungeons & Dragons or at least be pretty aware of the tropes of the adventuring life to enjoy Legends & Lattes because it relies on the dramatic irony of going against the grain. Despite the coziness, there is some real action, and a lot of heart.
It's a light, briskly-paced read, and I inhaled it in two days. If anything, it's a little bit too light. I didn't feel like there was enough at stake, and problems got resolved too easily. It's a goddamn power fantasy about starting a small business, which is fun, but it's not intense enough to get me out of my own head to be a real comfort read. Whether it's enough for you depends on how much stimulation your brain meat needs to calm down.
This book will make you crave coffee, cinnamon buns, and pain au chocolat, so definitely plan on getting some when you're reading it.
Get Legends & Lattes from the author's website.
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir #
The opening of Gideon the Ninth is a fucking tour de force. In the first chapter, you get dropped into the bizarre necromancy-powered world, learn what a badass swordswoman Gideon is, watch her insult and wisecrack her superiors, and get a quick and absolutely intriguing backstory. I love an asshole protagonist. But it has to be the right kind of asshole, which, no, I can't really define, but Gideon is the right kind.
In the second chapter, she duels her nemesis and loses pathetically. By the fourth chapter, when you finally get the back of the book blurb setup, that Gideon will have to become the swordswoman protector for the necromancer Harrow (the aforementioned nemesis), the characters and setting are perfectly painted and you have to know how they're going to work out their mutual hate while doing some creepy quest.
It's a good thing that opening is so compelling because the pace slows way the hell down for the rest of the book. If I wasn't so invested in Gideon, I might not have kept going, but I was! It turns into a slow burn mystery with occasional corpse explosions until quite near the end. I hate mysteries that feel drawn out for no reason, so I read ahead and also read spoilers. That may not be the best way to read the book, but it is how I read.
Sadly, for plot reasons, Gideon is forced to fake a vow of silence for most of the middle of the book, so we miss out on a lot of Gideon snark. My other big disappointment was that we learn very little about Gideon's dirty magazine collection, of which much is made in the opening chapters and the book blurbs. But does Gideon leaf through her magazines of an evening on gross necromancy planet? Does she turn to them in times of emotional turmoil? No, she does not. It's like she, and perhaps the author, forgot about them in between all the murder skeletons, coughed up lungs, and soul suckers.
Complaints about uneven pacing and not quite enough snark and prurient jokes aside, I'm glad I finally read this book even though it gave me weird dreams. Indeed, I complain because the opening section is fucking next level, whereas the rest of the book is merely very good. It was Muir's first published novel, so it's likely she'll get stronger with time. I said this about If Found, Return to Hell as well--pacing is a craft issue and writers usually get better at it with practice and good editors. I love Muir's voice, her sense of humor, and her talent for absolute gross-out scenes, and I just hope she stays weird.
Get Gideon the Ninth from Tor publishing.